Oculus Rift S Hands-on: A Subtle But Sweet Refresh

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Oculus Rift S won a "highly recommended" honor for best VR headset in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for gaming.

After three years on shelves, the core Oculus Rift headset is finally getting a refresh. Launching this spring for $399, the Oculus Rift S upgrades Oculus’ flagship PC virtual reality headset with features like a higher-resolution display and better room tracking, all while maintaining support with every game and app in the existing Rift library. It's become one of our picks for best VR headsets.

Design-wise, the Rift S looks familiar, but with some notable changes. The all-black headset now adorns a Lenovo logo on the side, as the company helped Oculus optimize the device’s comfort and weight distribution. You’re still getting the same Oculus Touch controllers that ship with the original model, allowing you to dive right into games and creative apps right out of the box.

The most noticeable upgrade is the set of lenses up front that allow for the headset’s biggest new feature: passthrough+. Taking a page from the HTC Vive, this feature lets you see your real-life surroundings without taking the headset off, allowing you to easily sketch out a designated play area for room-scale VR experiences, or simply give your eyes a break from all the virtual action.

Speaking of room-scale, the Rift S packs Oculus’ Insight technology, which allows you to enjoy room-scale VR without having to set up any external sensors. The latest Rift sports five onboard sensors, which are built to make this seamless tracking setup as accurate as possible.

In terms of specs, the Rift S sports a resolution of 1280 x 1440 per eye (up from 1200 x 1080) and an 80-Hertz refresh rate, and weighs a little more than a pound. The headset delivers integrated audio from its headband, ditching the onboard headphones from the previous generation.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I spent some time with the Oculus Rift S playing viking action game Asgard’s Wrath as well as the colorful and quirky Vacation Simulator, and the experience was great -- if not a bit familiar.

I marveled at the planets in the nebulous skies of Asgard as I crossed a rainbow bridge and noticed tons of gory detail as I battled a Kraken in a violent ocean, though I can’t definitively say how much better the fidelity is compared to what you’d get on a standard Rift. The onboard positional audio sounded impressively crisp as I lopped off enemy heads in an arena and cooked some food for my robot friends, especially considering that I didn’t have headphones on.

The headset feels as light and comfortable as the original Rift, and I had an easy time adjusting it to my dome using the handy knob in the back. My colleague, Marshall Honorof, found the headset easy to wear even with his glasses on, and noted that the in-game tracking for titles such as Stormland felt very accurate.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We didn’t get a chance to test out the Rift S’ passthrough+ feature, which, combined with the built-in room-tracking, could end up being the biggest upgrade to Oculus’ new headset.

As it stands now, the Oculus Rift S seems like an impressive upgrade in the same way that the Xbox One S or iPhone XS were impressive upgrades. Folks just diving into the Oculus Rift ecosystem will be getting the best version of the headset yet, but for people who already own the original Rift, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough here to warrant plunking down an additional $399. Plus, all current and future Rift games will work with both versions of the headset.

Credit: Oculus

(Image credit: Oculus)

Perhaps the bigger question is around whether you should buy an Oculus Rift S or an Oculus Quest, the latter of which is a fully wireless all-in-one VR solution that doesn’t need to be connected to a PC. The Quest also launches in Spring and will carry the same $399 price tag as the Rift S, so we look forward to getting our hands on both headsets to see how they appeal to different kinds of VR enthusiasts.

Be sure to check out our GDC 2019 hub page for all of the latest gaming news and hands-on impressions straight out of San Francisco.

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.